8 Amazing Facts About Albatrosses

These incredible seabirds deserve our attention — and our help.

A wandering albatross, white with black-tipped wings, flies over the open ocean
Gerald Corsi / Getty Images

An albatross is a large, magnificent seabird capable of soaring incredible distances without rest. Long viewed with superstitious awe by sailors, they spend most of their time gliding over the open ocean. Most people around the world rarely get a glimpse of these unique birds, since when they do visit dry land, it's often only to breed on remote islands before going back out to sea.

Despite their elusiveness, however, most albatross species are now threatened with extinction due to human activities. In hopes of raising their profile and illustrating why we're lucky to share the planet with them, here are a few things you may not know about the amazing albatross.

1. The Albatross Has the Largest Wingspan of Any Living Bird

The Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans), is a large seabird from the family Diomedeidae which has a circumpolar range in the Southern Ocean. The Wandering Albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, with the average wingspan being 3.1 metres
Gerald Corsi / Getty Images

The wingspan of a wandering albatross measures up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) across, which makes it the largest extant bird on Earth in terms of wingspan. It has some competition from other albatross species, including the southern royal albatross, whose wingspan can reach up to 11 feet (3.3 meters).

A wandering albatross can soar 500 miles in a day and maintain speeds of nearly 80 mph for eight hours – without even flapping its wings. This ability has long fascinated engineers, who are keen to mimic the albatross's flying abilities with aircraft.

Part of the secret is locking elbow joints, which enable the albatross to keep its wings extended for long periods at no energy cost from its muscles. Additionally, the birds have mastered a skill known as dynamic soaring, which involves flying along a continually curving path in a way that extracts energy from the gradient of wind velocity, or wind shear. And because albatrosses inhabit areas of the world with reliably strong winds, dynamic soaring provides access to "an unlimited external energy source," according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

2. They Can Go Years Without Touching Land

A wandering albatross flies over roughs seas at Drakes Passage in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
A wandering albatross flies over roughs seas at Drakes Passage in the southern Atlantic Ocean. Mike Hill/Getty Images

Once they fledge, albatrosses may spend a year or more at sea without setting foot on land, most of which is spent flying. Touching down in the water puts them at risk from sharks, so they touch down only briefly to feed. It's widely believed that albatrosses must be able to sleep while flying; evidence of the behavior in albatrosses is still lacking, but it has been documented in the closely related frigatebird.

3. They Can Live and Raise Chicks Into Their 60s

Wisdom the world's oldest known banded, breeding bird
Wisdom the world's oldest known banded, breeding bird. USFWS - Pacific Region/flickr

All albatrosses are long-lived birds who can survive for many decades. In fact, some live well beyond their 50th birthday. The best-known example comes from a Laysan albatross named Wisdom, who was first banded by scientists in 1956 at Midway Atoll.

Wisdom continued returning to Midway for more than half a century, raising some three dozen chicks. When she was last seen in late 2018, Wisdom was 68 years old, making her the oldest known banded bird in the wild. She was also a mother yet again, making her one of the oldest known breeding birds. That chick hatched in early 2019.

4. They Mate for Life, With Some Wiggle Room

Albatross Birds courting dance, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Layne Kennedy / Getty Images

Albatrosses are known for being monogamous animals, forming a long-term bond with one partner that is rarely broken. They're often said to have the lowest "divorce rate" of any bird; mated pairs virtually never split up until one bird dies.

These pair bonds don't necessarily adhere to the human definition of romance. Albatross pairs spend limited time together, meeting up only briefly at their breeding grounds until their egg is laid. Then, they take turns incubating the egg and foraging for food. Eventually, both birds must search for food to keep their growing chick fed. Once their chick fledges after 165 days, the pair separates for the rest of the year, reuniting only when it's time to breed again. They are socially monogamous, which means they bond with a single partner but sometimes breed outside that relationship.

5. They Court Each Other With Elaborate Mating Dances

Laysan albatross mating dance
A Laysan albatross couple perform a ritual dance at Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Enrique Aguirre Aves/Getty Images

Since choosing a partner is such a momentous decision for albatrosses, they need a good system for identifying top candidates. They court each other with elaborate mating dances that develop over time and eventually become unique to each pair.

The wandering albatross has at least 22 distinct dance components. Their moves include head rolls, bill snaps, sky points, bowing, yammering, and yapping. The Laysan albatross's two dozen moves include whinnies, head flicks, bill claps, air snaps, stares, and sky calls. These components are combined into a sequence that's unique for each couple.

6. They Can Smell Food In the Water From 12 Miles Away

Northern Buller's Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri platei)
A Northern Buller's albatross dives for food off Chatham Islands, New Zealand. AGAMI stock / Getty Images

For over a hundred years, birds were believed to have little or no sense of smell – an idea put forth even by famed naturalist and bird artist John J. Audubon. Not only can birds smell, however, but scent seems to be a crucial part of the way many seabirds find their food.

Yet even for strong-nosed seabirds, following a scent trail on the open ocean isn't easy. Their food may send plenty of pungent clues downwind, but air turbulence at sea chops up the odor plume, creating spotty patches of scent that are hard to follow. According to a 2008 study, in which researchers fitted 19 wandering albatrosses with GPS sensors, the birds often approached food by flying upwind in a zigzag pattern, which seems to improve their chances of tracing an intermittent odor plume back to the source.

Sight is important, too, the researchers noted, but smell may contribute to as many as half of the albatross's in-flight food discoveries, which can be made from as far away as 12 miles.

7. Some Albatrosses Form Female-Female Pairs

albatross mother and chick on Oahu, Hawaii
An albatross mother tends to her chick on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. dsischo/Getty Images

Female Laysan albatrosses sometimes pair with other females. This phenomenon is especially prevalent on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where the breeding colony is predominantly female and 31% of all mated pairs consist of two females. These female-female pairs raise chicks together after their eggs are fertilized by either unpaired males or via extra-pair copulation with already-paired males.

Female-female pairs fledge fewer chicks than female-male pairs do, but it is a better option evolutionarily than not breeding at all, researchers noted in a 2008 study. And since pairing with another female allows birds to reproduce who might not otherwise have had the opportunity, the behavior seems to be an adaptive response to local demographics.

8. They Are at Risk of Extinction

black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophris)
Enrique Aguirre Aves / Getty Images

Of the 22 albatross species recognized by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 15 are threatened with extinction, and eight species listed as either endangered or critically endangered (including the wandering royal albatross and the Tristan albatross.

Many albatrosses are dying at sea, fatally ensnared by fishing lines and nets, but many are also dying as eggs and chicks at their breeding grounds, due to the presence of invasive predators like cats and rats. Ocean plastic also poses a growing threat to albatrosses, with chicks sometimes fed a dangerous mix of plastic debris by their unwitting parents.

There are ways to help albatrosses. Groups like the Marine Stewardship Council and Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch offer information on sustainable seafood, making it easier to buy fish caught with bycatch-free and seabird-safe methods. And since ocean plastic can originate from virtually anywhere on Earth, you can support albatross conservation simply by using less plastic and recycling whatever you do use.